17 November 2009

“Galloping Through Life with Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld”

Part Seventeen
[original interview May 23, 2007]

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, a New York City native and East Hampton/Amagansett resident [pictured above in trademark cowboy hat] began his career in the mid 1980’s as a cinematographer. Some of the award winning films he’s eyed the lens for; BIG the heartfelt comedy that catapulted Tom Hanks to film stardom, When Harry Met Sally the timeless romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal and Misery the Stephen King nightmare brought to life with Kathy Bates and James Caan.

In the late 80’s his ability to paint a picture with the lens caught the eye of the dynamic duo, the Coen Brothers and Sonnenfeld signed on to film Raising Arizona with Nicholas Cage and the gangster film Millers Crossing with fedora wearing Gabriel Byrne, and John Tuturro. By the early 90’s he directed his first film with Angelica Huston and the late Raul Julia in The Addams Family. Bringing the black and white 1964 cult classic television series to the big screen. Where characters who once appeared strange but loveable to us in the mid 60’s, donning black lipstick and clothes, has now incorporated into our landscape by this generations version of Goth.

Last year, Sonnenfeld directed a dysfunctional family’s comedic sojourn across Colorado in RV with Robin Williams, and this year produced the Disney film Enchanted with Susan Sarandon. In the movie business it’s directing he loves the most. “I like to be in charge of everything…since at home I have an opinionated 14 year-old daughter Chloe, and Susan, my strong and smart wife of 18 years who tell me what to do. So when I’m directing, I’m in charge---so that’s very exciting for me,” he mused.

Sonnenfeld who’s been involved with over a dozen blockbusters during his 20 year career in film. The most popular to span all demographics of movie goers was the 1997 mega hit Men in Black where he directed the stars, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. And it was at the wrap party of the 2002 sequel, Men in Black II that the crew gave their beloved director, Sonnenfeld an unusual parting gift, a Western saddle. “When directing I put it on top of an apple box and sit on it…..it makes me feel more manly,” he jests. “I don’t ride horses---I only ride the apple box.”

And he hopes to one day ride that saddle onto a set starring George Clooney, since he was able to only produce Clooney in Out of Sight in 1998. “Some day I would like to direct Clooney in a film. Because he’s comically handsome and very talented,” he explained.

Sonnenfeld’s favorite 1995 film that he produced, directed and had a cameo in, Get Shorty with John Travolta took him over 6 years to get made. “I acquired the script and every studio I pitched it to passed on the film. So it was very rewarding finally getting it made.” With Travolta not appearing in many films since the 1970’s, he hadn’t been Sonnenfeld’s first choice. Until his wife Susan saw a rough cut of Quentin Tarrentino’s, Pulp Fiction. “Many actors passed on the Get Shorty script, from Warren Beatty to Dustin Hoffman. My wife was a big Travolta fan and told me to watch Pulp Fiction. After I did I was more than convinced he’d do a great job.” And the character “Chili” spun Travolta’s career back on track.

But making films has its challenges when you’re trying to bring that Hollywood magic to the screen. “It’s very difficult to convince the studio heads to green light the films you want to make,” Sonnenfeld admitted. “I have scripts I’ve owned for years and the hardest thing is trying to convince the studio to back you and make the movie.”

This spring, Sonnenfeld as director/producer ventured back into television with an ABC series Notes From the Underbelly a comedy about the politics of parenthood starring Peter Cambor and Jennifer Westfeldt, based on Risa Green's novel of the same name. With his experience in both genre’s, movies and television shows, does he have a preference. “Making films or TV shows are both rewarding for different reasons. I like directing and producing TV shows because the pace is fast. While films are a slower and a drearier experience. What else I like about TV is if you direct a bad TV show it’s, ‘no harm, no foul,’ and it will never be aired. But if I direct a bad movie…it will be in Variety the next morning,” he concedes.

Sonnenfeld’s no stranger to adapting books to screen. He took Elmore Leonard’s novels Get Shorty and Out of Sight successfully from the page to the screen. Where some readers cringe when their beloved books are adapted to film because they claim movies don’t do the book justice. Sonnenfeld has been able to sweep those grumbles under the red carpet with his praise worthy adaptations. He explained, “What makes Leonard’s work so fun to adapt is he writes great dialogue and characters, two things that are hard to find in a script. His work supplies you with both. And adapting for TV or film has the same challenges, it needs to have three elements: a good story, compelling characters and be written well.”

And this time he’s inked his own script with writer/producer Bryan Fuller for their fall ABC show, Pushing Daisies a high-concept fantasy blended with romance and crime that Sonnenfeld will direct. This love story is about a young man “Ned” played by Golden Globe nominee Lee Pace, who in order to solve crimes, has the special gift of being able to briefly bring someone dead back to life with a simple touch. Another Golden Globe nominee Swoosie Kurtz will also be part of the weekly cast of this magical and quirky series. And unlike the challenges of Hollywood studio exec’s and films, ABC has been able with foresight to harness and corner the market when it comes to quality and enjoyable programming. Do doubt this production will fall into the charmed line up of new hot fall shows.

There is longevity in films as opposed to television programming, “What’s interesting about television is more people will turn on TV in one night, like 10 million viewers will watch Pushing Daises, and that’s equivalent to $100 million dollars in movie making ticket sales,” he says.

Unpredictable humor runs through the vein of Sonnenfeld’s work, whether it’s film, television, or writing, as he scribes a monthly column, “The Digital Man” for Esquire magazine since 2003. He attributes his innate wit to his parents, “I grew up an only child in a protective family. So I spent a lot of time with adults…my parents friends, a lot of time with funny Jews,” he recalled.

Even though Sonnenfeld was a short, shy and a quiet boy when he was in school. He grew 6 inches right before his senior year. And like most people who have a knack for comedic timing whether they’re famous or not, they’ve usually spent their early childhood years in some sort of uncomfortable inner torment. Which gives birth to humor as one ages. “As you get older you become your worst trait,” Sonnenfeld observes. “I find the world surreal and amusing as it’s always been---I’ve just become more tolerant.”

Sonnenfeld an East Hampton/Amagansett resident for over 25 years has raised all 3 of his children there. And has been a generous supporter to the local school system and helped found The Hayground School in Bridgehampton, NY. In the summer he packs up his family and leaves the Hamptons for their second home in Telluride, Colorado in the area RV was filmed. Maybe he used a hint of autobiographical material….